NPR Says Learning Styles Are A Myth…

I’m on several listservs. I enjoy watching the dialogue between instructors and administrators about everything from the coolest new techno-widget to research questions and answers for at-risk reports. The conversations are typically interesting and challenging.

One that I’ve been watching for the past 48 hours is no different. There is a pretty significant debate going on with regard to Learning Styles. NPR ran a story a few days ago suggesting there is no such thing as proven learning styles (NPR story) and that educators are wasting their time trying to use them in teaching.

The listserv I have been watching began with a light-hearted response to the NPR story and it soon turned downright ugly! Professors wrote in explaining how over-joyed they were to hear a story about something they knew to be “crap all along” (quote from the listserv – name withheld). The visceral rhetoric talked about ridiculous trainings on the subject and that differentiation equates to edutainment (which essentially is teaching to the lowest common denominator).

(It was interesting that many of the anti-learing sytlists ignored a component of the story that explains how, “Mixing things up is something we know is scientifically supported as something that boosts attention…”)

So, several posts centered around the idea that we should all go back to lecturing as it has never been proven to be ineffective…

I’m quite troubled by this conversation. (I don’t typically blog about other digital conversations I’m watching.) Although I must admit that I’m not surprised. As a faculty member and someone who speaks about the future of education, I come across a fair share of educators who disagree with topics of all scope and sequence. And I hear often about the lack of evidence for Dale’s Cone, Learning Styles, and the need for differentiation.

But as I watch and listen to the debate, I have to ask myself some basic questions of motivation. Who has a stake in the fight and why?

It certainly does not surprise me that faculty would want to replicate the manner of teaching that was modeled for them. Most people parent the way they were parented. Most people use manners as they were shown to use manners. And so, it makes sense that most people teach the way they were taught. Especially considering that the overwhelming majority of instructors have never had a single class on how to best teach or educate anyone. (We’ll not talk about the assmption that because someone is a subject matter expert they inherently know how to teach others for now…)

But, as stakeholders in the debate, I believe it is important to ask about their motivation. Now please don’t get me wrong, I LOVE to lecture. I actually won Lecturer of the Year at Metro State before my Pearson days. I enjoy the attention, the control, and the challenge of connecting to the crowd. I like trying to find ways to challenge, engage, focus, inform, and persuade. I really enjoy a good lecture. But that actually leads to my first point. As much as I like lecturing, I have to admit that it’s easy in contrast to creating differentiated learning modules for my students. And there is a major semantic elephant in the room…I said “good lecture” above. I would argue that most lectures are NOT good. I know there are a few great lecturers out there, but most instructors are not them. (Yes, I read Nudge and I know that most instructors believe they are in the top 10% of eductators…but I have bad news for most of you…) Want me to prove it?

Go to a conference. ANY conference. I’m particularly embarrassed by my own disclipline of communication in terms of conference presentations. You all are probably nodding already, because you know what I’m going to say. 90% of the presentations are just awful. They are boring, uninspiring lectures (sometimes more appropriately called a reading…) where the presenters (aka instructors) do not connect to the audience, the material, or the event. Most conference presentations are lectures and if you scan the room during one of these lectures, do you know what you see? You see OTHER EDUCATORS who are sleeping, texting, Facebooking, or otherwise not paying attention.

So, it seems to me that the first reason a person would want to go back to lectures all the time is because it’s known and easy. Haven’t we all wondered if a college instructor just rolled out of bed and stood before the class expounding on things they “just knew” without any prep? And even if a lecturer does prep, how much prep actually takes place? While it may be days or weeks for a precious few, it’s likely less than an hour for most.

OK, so why else would teachers not want to differentiate instruction? I think it’s actually simple. People hate change about as much as they hate for anyone to tell them what to do. And college educators (I believe) are particularly hard on those who give an opposing view. Think about it. Professors give red marks for a living. THEY are the ones to tell someone else that what they have done or thought about is wrong…not the other way around. So, when someone says, “I don’t think you’re teaching these students in the best possible way…” they tend to get pretty defensive.

Finally, one more thought around the motivation of anti-learning style debaters that may come into play here. It’s actually a fallacy, typically known as the fallacy of tradition. It’s the idea that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – or more appropriately here, “We should do it this way because we’ve always done it this way?” In these listserv conversations, I watched faculty say that everyone on the list went to college and made it through lecturers, so it must be fine. Hmmm….I’ll let go the problem with educators loving education far more than non-educators. But, there is a problem with the whole line of reasoning. The reason people started asking questions in the first place was because it was NOT working. The cracks in the armor first showed up in K-12 and then quickly moved to higher education. Our students started doing poorly on local tests, national tests, and finally world tests. Our students stopped being as employable as more and more white collar jobs went to foreign-educated graduates. So, to say that it isn’t broken is wrong. And going on the old addage about insanity being an action of doing something the same way twice and expecting different results, it doesn’t seem to fly here.

So, let me wrap up what has become a very long posting with two final thoughts. First, I will concede that the term “learning style” has become so bastardized that it may no longer be meaningful. If we need to think of better ways to express our research and to explore the extraordinarily complex human mind, so be it. While I believe we will someday understand how individuals learn better, I also feel that the brain is as complex as the cosmos and we just don’t have the technology yet. But researching and framing are two different things. A learning style framework, regardless of the author, is at its core, a way to promote differentiation. And again, differentiation HAS been proven to be better teaching.

Second, if you doubt that learning styles exist, talk to parents. Specifically, talk to parents of two or more kids. I am willing to bet that 99% will tell you that their kids both learn quite differently. So, from a very practical standpoint, let’s start using effective teaching and learning techniques that promote the BEST learning in all situations, for all students…not just the few who can manage to stay with us as we lecture. It’s time to change the conversation…

Good luck and good teaching.